Divulging donors of Clinton library: a bad precedent?

Congressional committee probing the pardons wants to know all names, but others cite privacy concerns.

A congressional committee's desire to examine fundraising records for the future William J. Clinton Presidential Library is touching off a furor in charitable circles over the issue of donor privacy.

Confidentiality is a long-honored tradition among private foundations - one that its supporters say has been upheld in US courts. Now, a congressman's request to see donor records of the foundation raising money for the Clinton library - part of his investigation into the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich - threatens to undermine that principle, they say.

Several legal analysts have questioned the right of Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana to see such information, and those involved in other presidential libraries say he is out of line to ask for records.

There is a "long tradition and a need in fundraising to keep these things private," says Don Wilson, former executive director of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation.

So far, the Clinton library foundation has disclosed information regarding Mr. Rich, his ex-wife, Denise Rich, and those linked to them. Mr. Burton's House Committee on Government Reform is examining a possible connection between Ms. Rich's $450,000 donation to the library foundation and President Clinton's pardon of Mr. Rich. Rich was wanted on criminal tax-evasion charges stemming from profits made during the years the US instituted price controls on oil.

The foundation, however, last week refused to turn over all subpoenaed information - which included complete fundraising records and all contribution lists about library donations or pledges.

Foundation records for presidential libraries "have always been private," says Skip Rutherford, director of the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation. "They should remain private. Presidential library foundations tend to run differently than other foundations." Mr. Rutherford has been subpeonaed to testify before Burton's committee on Thursday.

Watchdog groups say the presidential library subpoena could have a dampening effect on potential donors to charities - especially those who insist on anonymity. Moreover, donors may not want one charity to know what they gave to a similar group, to avoid unwanted solicitation.

Still, subpoenas of organizations such as presidential libraries or the International Red Cross are rare. Supporters of such action say potential donor recalcitrance may be a small price to pay to uncover grievous influence-peddling in government.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, created in 1997, is trying to raise $200 million for construction of the library and other projects. In a letter to Burton's House committee, foundation lawyer David Kendall cites key reasons for keeping foundation records private.

Mr. Kendall said the "sweeping" request violates the First Amendment, represents an "unprecedented intrusion" of a presidential library foundation's operation, and ignores the "well-established and significant public policy considerations" that support confidentiality of contributor lists.

In the subpoena response, Kendall cites 13 civil-rights cases and decisions related to charitable organizations. Among them is a 1959 US Supreme Court ruling, stating that Alabama could not compel the NAACP to produce copies of its donor and membership lists. Considering the racial climate of the time, forcing it to do so would have a chilling effect on freedoms of speech and assembly, the court ruled.

Congress approved the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955, at the request of President Harry Truman. The law established a system of privately built and federally maintained libraries.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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